Mesh Router vs. Wi-Fi Extender: Which Is Right for You?

Wi-Fi extenders and mesh routers are great ways to expand your wireless network. Get an extender if you already have a router or gateway with limited range. Get a mesh-compatible router and satellite—or a complete kit—if you’re ready to upgrade to a whole-home solution.

If you’re still on the fence about which is better for you, we’ll explain the pros and cons so you can decide what’s best for your home or office.

Know your connection’s speed first

Knowing your current speed before investing in new equipment is good, as slow speeds may not be from your Wi-Fi. Run our speed test to see if you’re reaching your plan’s maximum potential, and then decide what’s best for you.

What is a Wi-Fi extender?

A Wi-Fi extender is a standalone device you plug into a power outlet or set on a surface within your router’s Wi-Fi range. It broadcasts a new Wi-Fi network into areas your router or gateway can’t reach using signals picked up from your original network. Its only job is to receive and retransmit data.

To address different use cases, most extenders now have two modes—repeat and access point. We’ll explain both modes and how an extender boosts your Wi-Fi range.

Repeat

In the default repeat mode, the extender connects to your router using Wi-Fi, but it doesn’t actually repeat your existing Wi-Fi network. Instead, it creates a secondary Wi-Fi network typically using the same network name (SSID), channel, and frequency. It accesses your primary Wi-Fi just like all your other wireless devices, so it needs your login information to function.

Did you know SSIDs are really for your benefit?

Devices like smartphones, routers, and extenders rely on the Basic Service Set Identifier (BSSID) instead, which is a string of numbers set by the manufacturer (a.k.a. MAC address). Because radio waves carrying data bounce all over the place, data packets need the BSSID so your smartphone knows which data it should use and discard.

When your smartphone connects to the extender, the extender receives the phone’s data, changes the addresses, and forwards that repackaged data to the router and out to the internet it goes.

When the router receives a response from the modem or ONT, it forwards the response to the extender, which in turn receives, repackages, and retransmits the response to the smartphone.

That all said, the only thing “repeating” is the SSID, but you can change the name if you ever want to disconnect from the extender manually in the future.

Access point

In access point (AP) mode, the extender connects to your router using an Ethernet or coax cable. It doesn’t interact with your router through Wi-Fi and typically doesn’t use the same SSID either.

Unlike with repeat mode, you can place the extender anywhere you want—you don’t need to install it within the router’s range. After that, log in to the device using a web browser or app and create the secondary Wi-Fi network.

When your smartphone connects, it transmits data to the extender. The extender receives the phone’s data, changes the addresses, and sends the repackaged data through the wired connection. The data arrives at the router and moves to your modem or fiber ONT.

Five examples of Wi-Fi extenders

ModelClassPrice*Order online
NETGEAR EX7300AC2200$92.00View on Amazon
ASUS RP-AC55AC1200$59.84View on Amazon
TP-Link RE700XAX300$119.99View on Amazon
Linksys RE7310AX1800$101.99View on Amazon
D-Link DAP-X1870AX1800$89.99View on Amazon

Booster

The term almost always applies to certain Wi-Fi extenders because they “boost” your overall wireless range. For example, you may get a 30% signal from the router while standing next to the bedroom door. A Wi-Fi extender installed in the same spot may have a 95% signal, which is excellent.

So, if you move 10 feet away from the bedroom door, you may see a 20% signal strength from the router and an 80% from the extender. The extender has a stronger connection and a bit more speed, but you won’t see the best speeds unless you wire that extender to the router.

Repeat vs. extend: Which is better?

Repeat mode

Pros:

  • Uses same Wi-Fi network
  • Requires no cables

Cons:

  • Has slower downloads
  • Requires ideal placement

Extend (AP) mode

Pros:

  • Has the best speeds
  • Requires no specific placement

Cons:

  • Creates new Wi-Fi network
  • Uses a wired connection

If you’re expanding Wi-Fi coverage into another room, an extender in repeat mode should suffice as long as there aren’t many obstacles between it and the router. An extender in AP mode is ideal if you need Wi-Fi in another part of your home or office and you don’t mind the cable—or there are too many obstacles for repeat mode to be effective.

But remember that an extender can cause interference, so keep it a reasonable distance from the router. You don’t want to install an extender only to slow down your primary Wi-Fi network.

Do you have the best Ethernet cable for AP mode?

Consult our guide to the best Ethernet cables to get the most out of your wired connection between the router and your extender.

What is a mesh router?

A mesh router can be two things:

  • A standalone router or gateway supporting mesh networking
  • One unit in a kit of two or more serving as the primary access point (router)

Standalone mesh routers

Some traditional standalone routers support mesh networking. ASUS AiMesh, for example, allows you to pair multiple routers together to create one whole-home Wi-Fi network—no separate SSIDs and passwords needed.

TP-Link’s OneMesh is another example. Eight TP-Link routers support this technology, along with eight Wi-Fi extenders and three powerline adapters. As with ASUS AiMesh, all OneMesh units come together to create one whole-home network with seamless roaming.

Standalone devices with mesh networking

ModelTypePrice*Order online
ASUS RT-AX3000Router$159.00View on Amazon
ASUS ZenWiFi XT8Router$249.99View on Amazon
TP-Link Archer GX90Router$224.99View on Amazon
TP-Link RE605XExtender$128.00View on Amazon

Mesh router kit

Unlike the standalone routers and Wi-Fi extenders listed above, some mesh routers are designed to be a part of a multi-device system. It’s identical to its accompanying satellite devices, but it becomes the router because it’s the unit wired to a cable modem, gateway, or fiber ONT.

Generally, you want to buy a pack of two or more since each unit depends on the other to provide wide Wi-Fi coverage—versus one central router that blasts Wi-Fi in every direction. The beauty of a mesh network is that you can easily add more satellite devices without worrying about keeping close to the central router unit.

Mesh Wi-Fi devices

ModelClassPrice (per unit)*Order online
Amazon Eero 6AX1800$89.00View on Amazon
TP-Link Deco X55AX3000$109.99View on Amazon
Google Nest WifiAC2200$110.00View on Amazon
ASUS ZenWiFi XT8AX6600$249.99View on Amazon

Okay, but what exactly is mesh?

To understand mesh, look at how traditional routers and extenders work together.

Traditional routers broadcast Wi-Fi outwards from each antenna in a donut-like shape. These donuts intersect—like ripples in the water—to create speedy little hotspots in the air.

Wi-Fi extenders are separate devices and ideally need to sit within these hotspots for the best wireless connection when set to repeat mode—hotspot placement doesn’t apply in AP mode.

Communication between the extender and the router is a two-way street, so if you add another extender, you have dual two-way streets to the router but no pathway between the extenders.

Mesh networking is different.

All compatible mesh devices communicate with each other, creating a web of two-way streets. One unit still serves as the router, but all others become satellites that usually join the network automatically when you first turn them on. They’re alll friends here versus two or three strangers forced to work together.

But the big takeaway with mesh networking is intelligent seamless roaming, and that’s where the mesh vs. extender comparison really gets good.

Mesh vs. extender: Roaming

Moving between a router and extender is similar to moving from one access point to another. Your device stays connected to the router, for example, until the signal grows too weak and it disconnects. Then it connects to the extender since it has a stronger signal. You don’t have to manually log back in, either, if you set your device to rejoin the network.

So why does this matter?

Let’s say you’re standing outside your front door and want to stream music, but your phone’s still connected to the main router. You get 10 Mbps at the most, and because Wi-Fi speeds fluctuate, your speed drops to 0 Mbps at times. But your stubborn phone refuses to disconnect. When this happens, your music stream pauses as it buffers. Annoying, right?

Now let’s say you install an extender just inside the front door, and you record 100 Mbps in the same spot outside. But your phone still refuses to disconnect from the router and won’t automatically switch to the extender’s stronger signal, which would eliminate all the buffering.

Mesh is different.

Mesh networking uses intelligent roaming (also called smart roaming or seamless roaming) to eliminate the wait-and-connect scenario.

Let’s go back to streaming music at the doorway. This time, your device connects to the satellite device automatically because the signal strength between you and the router unit dropped below a set level. Behind the scenes, your phone and the router unit determined the satellite had a better signal, so your phone switched, and you didn’t even know it.

Mesh vs. extender: Throughput

When you stand next to a speaker with the volume dialed up to glass-shattering levels, the music is really loud, right? You can still hear the music when you stand outside, but it’s nowhere near as loud.

The same scenario applies to Wi-Fi.

You can stand two feet from a router and measure around 850 Mbps on a smartphone, which is typical for Wi-Fi 6. Depending on the router, you can record around 400 Mbps standing outside the front door. If there’s an extender or mesh satellite next to the front door, the starting speed is 400 Mbps because that’s the data rate captured from the router at that spot.

What’s important to note here is signal strength. The extender or satellite has a stronger signal because you’re closer to it than the router, so you could record 200 Mbps out on the sidewalk versus 20 Mbps in the same spot if you stayed connected to the router.

Okay, but what if the extender or satellite supports 1,200 Mbps? It doesn’t matter. You only get half of that from the start because the extender or satellite uses the other half to communicate with the router. So even if it captured 700 Mbps by the door, the most you can get is 600 Mbps on one device.

Backroads give a speed boost

Some mesh kits use a third Wi-Fi band as a private backroad to provide more bandwidth. Now you get the full 1,200 Mbps maximum transfer rate because the satellite uses that private road to communicate with the router or other satellites. But you’re still limited to the 700 Mbps speed because that’s the data rate captured from the router.

Sometimes you can use Ethernet as the backroad, although it defeats the purpose of having wireless satellites. In this scenario, each satellite typically supports up to 1,000 Mbps in wired speed versus what it would capture from the router or other satellites via Wi-Fi.

This is quite the rabbit hole, we get it. The big takeaway is that you can add more and more satellites to the mesh Wi-Fi constellation, and the network automatically chooses the fastest path from the router to your device. The speed you get depends on the number of Wi-Fi hops between you and the router, but you can eliminate the speed reductions by wiring them all together—if they support it.

Extenders can’t create a seamless Wi-Fi network: they serve as Point B only. In other words, if you connect to a second extender but the first one is closer to the router, your data travels between the second one and the router only, resulting in slower speeds.

Our verdict: Mesh networking is the better option

If you already have a standalone router, getting an extender is a cheaper option. It’s not ideal for whole-home coverage, but it can give you some of the speed you may need outside your router’s range. AP mode guarantees more speed at the cost of cables running through your home or office.

Mesh networking is ideal for whole-home coverage. Compatible devices create constellations of Wi-Fi connections from a central point, offering better speeds than the router-extender setup. You can purchase a kit with identical units or a standalone mesh router and add compatible satellites as needed. But you can’t add just any satellite—you must pair a TP-Link mesh router to a TP-Link mesh satellite, for example.

Disclaimer

Author -

Kevin Parrish has more than a decade of experience working as a writer, editor, and product tester. He began writing about computer hardware and soon branched out to other devices and services such as networking equipment, phones and tablets, game consoles, and other internet-connected devices. His work has appeared in Tom’s Hardware, Tom's Guide, Maximum PC, Digital Trends, Android Authority, How-To Geek, Lifewire, and others. At HighSpeedInternet.com, he focuses on internet security.

Editor - Aaron Gates